[Secretly Canadian; 2021]

Last year, Helen Ballentine aka Skullcrusher released her self-titled debut EP, a collection of four hushed acoustic stunners. They were written in her bedroom, and the words often found the songwriter inhabiting that same space as she reflected on her subtle vicissitudes of mood. They came with no great artifice or expectation – they were pure. To have these four songs put out as a debut release on Secretly Canadian, one of the most vaunted indie labels currently working, was to drag her private life out into the spotlight in front of a packed stadium of listeners. Needless to say, it was quite a shock for the songwriter – and her follow-up EP, Storm in Summer, is mostly focused on her coming to terms with this attention.

The most obvious and noteworthy shift between EPs is the leap in sonic density. No longer does she sound as if she’s just offhandedly recorded her musings on a voice note, instead Storm in Summer is boldly and proudly studio recorded, with shinier banjos, drums and synths bulking out her sound into unabashed pop-folk. This undoubtedly puts a greater distance between the songwriter and the listener – perhaps purposefully – but Ballentine’s words are just as honest and vulnerable, if you penetrate the production.

A sound bed of chirping birds underscores the opening “Windshield”, and is the first sign that we’ve shifted out of Ballentine’s bedroom and into the wider world. Her power-pop double-tracked voice soon comes in with the affirmation “I smashed my foot through the windshield.” This is more or less the only line in the song, and is both sonically and descriptively more forceful than anything we’ve heard from her before, perhaps being an indication of what the songwriter’s uncontrollable neuroses make her feel like doing now she’s exposed to the world.

The EP’s title track is the most direct expression of her coming to terms with the new attention. She litters the song with lovely thoughts like “How did I end up here with my old lines on your page?” and “I wonder if I go back home, can I hide away? / Or if I step into this storm, is it warm?” Skullcrusher has swung for the fences on this one, with a full-on pop-rock sound that elevates her paranoia to festival-size anthem. Undoubtedly it’s catchy and brightly melodious, but one can’t help but feel the impact would have been greater if it had been a quiet, insular track, where we truly got to hear her emotional frailty in her breath. The song bleeds into “Prefer”, which utilises susurrations of rain to underscore her repeatedly musing “I prefer the rain in summer” – and despite the simplicity, we feel much closer to the songwriter. It feels like the template of what “Storm in Summer” should have been.

This is true across Storm in Summer, as the songs where there is less clutter are more affecting. “Song For Nick Drake” takes us back to the interiority that we loved so much on Skullcrusher, as she sings about spending time alone, reading in book stores, and getting caught in the rain, all while listening to the titular songwriter. It’s the kind of breezy yet deeply resonant song that is Ballentine’s calling card, and even the additions of whistling synths and bubbling electronics work alongside the windswept nature of the song, drawing us in rather than keeping us at arm’s length.

We get even closer to the songwriter on “Steps”, where her voice is right up close to the eardrum as she reflects on mortality: “Hoping I have all my friends / When I’m older, sick in bed – but I’m sitting here alone.” This simplistic honesty is something that connects, and doesn’t need to be bolstered to leave its mark. 

Storm in Summer is an interesting release, as it finds Skullcrusher at an early nexus point in her artistic growth. No one can fault her for wanting to expand sonically, but songs like “Windshield” and “Storm in Summer” show that when she adds too much she hews closer to generic pop rock. When she finds the ideal balance between intimacy and sonic complexity, as on the EP’s best songs, she’s still capable of delivering a soft knockout. With these two EPs now under her belt, one has to assume she’ll be building towards a debut album next, and whether she can maintain that ideal balance across a full length will certainly be a challenge, but one that could prove extremely powerful if achieved.

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